Senior forward Wayne Blackshear and freshman point guard Quentin Snider each played perhaps his finest game in a Louisville uniform in the Cards’ opening round 57-55 victory over 13-seed UC-Irvine, but the majority of the remaining roster left much to be desired.
Louisville had not been handed a first-round loss since 2011 when the Cards fell to another 13-seed in Morehead State, and Friday afternoon, they came dangerously close to facing the same fate. 7-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye had been giving Louisville matchup problems all game and stayed in the game until the end, even taking a 55-53 lead with a minute left.
A determined Blackshear immediately took matters into his own hands, though, driving to the basket for a quick two points. After UC-Irvine guard Tim Nelson missed a deep three with 14 seconds left, Snider made a great hustle play to retrieve the rebound, get fouled, and hit both free throws to give the Cards a two point lead, and ultimately, the win. Survive and advance.
Blackshear finished with a game-high 19 points and 7 rebounds, playing all 40 minutes and looking as confident and aggressive as he has ever looked. Snider finished with a career-high 16 points and displayed the same confidence and determination to win as Blackshear. The only problem? They combined for 21 of Louisville’s 27 second-half points (21 of 25 points after Montrezl Harrell’s half-opening free throws). No one else could deliver near the same production.
Guard Terry Rozier played a good game, too, scoring 12 points and dishing out 5 assists, and center Mangok Mathiang gave a great defensive effort guarding Ndiaye, but to make a deep tournament run, Louisville is going to need much more out of its supporting cast.
Following Louisville’s ACC Tournament loss to North Carolina, coach Rick Pitino stressed the need to get more offense from the center position along with getting more effort and production from freshman center Chinanu Onuaku. Against UC-Irvine, though it was more of the same.
Mathiang, Onuaku, and freshman Anas Mahmoud combined for just 4 rebounds and none of the three registered a point. Onuaku played just 14 minutes after being unable to contain Ndiaye and getting lost on multiple defensive assignments.
The bench only produced 2 points, both coming from freshman forward Jaylen Johnson (who also had a steal in 3 minutes), and for the second straight game, Pitino opted to go with walk-on sophomore David Levitch over freshman wing Shaqquan Aaron and sophomore guard Anton Gill.
How Pitino handles Gill and Aaron will be interesting moving forward. Aaron is an extremely talented, but raw, former 5-star prospect who has shown glimpses of elite ability but has never seemed to grasp Pitino’s system. Gill has played like a loose cannon when he has seen the court this year. Both players, though, are better high-major talents than Levitch, and both have the talent to contribute. Whether they can (or whether they will be allowed to) remains to be seen, but the less they play, especially at the expense of a walk on, the more uncertain their futures at Louisville become.
The Cards could use more production from the bench, but they will without a doubt need more production from star forward Montrezl Harrell. Much more.
Harrell finished with 8 points and 4 rebounds, a relatively unimpressive stat line for him, and he only took one shot in the second half. Ndiaye’s size clearly gave him issues inside, but he was missing mid-range jumpers and being uncharacteristically passive on the offensive end. Louisville managed despite his off game, but against their upcoming opponent Northern Iowa, the odds may not be so highly in the Cards’ favor.
The Cards’ second-round opponent just defeated 12-seed Wyoming convincingly 71-54, shooting 46% and 50% from three. On average they only score about 65 points per game, but when they shoot, they don’t miss much. They rank 16th nationally in field goal percentage (48.3%) and 12th nationally in three-point percentage (39.8%). Seth Tuttle is one of the nation’s top power forwards, and Harrell is going to have to bring his A-game.
It is a welcoming and positive sign to see Snider and Blackshear play so well, but this team can only go so far without getting production from the center and the bench, and Northern Iowa is far better then UC-Irvine.
Pitino said he expects his team to play better vs. Northern Iowa. Blackshear and Snider need to continue the high level of play and winning attitude they displayed Friday, but the rest of the team needs to catch up if Louisville wants to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year.